In Nashville in the late 1960s, prison was coming out of the closet. Granted, country singers had lamented for generations the tender mercies of life behind bars, and a few, more quietly, had experienced them. But in the late ’60s the subject was becoming more public. Johnny Cash sang for free at Folsom and San Quentin and pushed Columbia to let him record there. Young Merle Haggard wrote and wailed about it, and the industry whispered a suspicion he soon confirmed — he was a full-fledged graduate of that alma mater known among its wry fraternity as The College.
It was into this Music City era that songwriter-singer David Allan Coe came with undisciplined, sometimes ugly, but beguilingly disturbing wares. His voice was a roar of outraged pain overlaid by requisite bravado from his previous address, the Ohio state pen.
The timing of his arrival just as prison hit the forefront of Nashville’s consciousness may have been crucial. A month after a story about Coe’s presence in town appeared in the Nashville Tennessean (a profile of just another wannabe sleeping in his car with a guitar in his arms, written by yours truly), he was recording Penitentiary Blues in a local studio for maverick producer Shelby Singleton.
Let it be said at the outset that nowhere on either of these two CDs are to be found the equal of such classic Coe as the supremely masochistic “Would You Lay With Me In A Field Of Stone” or his redo of Steve Goodman’s “You Never Even Called Me By My Name”; you won’t even find a “Jack Daniel’s If You Please” (“knock me to my knees”) or a “Take This Job And Shove It”. You will, however, definitely find the seeds of these products of Coe’s twisted sometimes-genius.
Penitentiary Blues is indeed a blues record, which definitely made it “alternative” in the Nashville of that time. Its fare is sometimes artless and sometimes imitative, sung in a harsh voice obviously not overly accustomed to microphones. The title track is stereotypical of its subject. “Funeral Parlor Blues” seems inspired by “St. James Infirmary”. “Age 21” sounds as if its muse was Haggard’s line about turning 21 in prison, except that Coe’s character looks forward to getting out at 21 so that, in stark contrast to conventional under-agers yearning to slip the bonds of rural or suburban post-Vacation Bible School, he can bust out of a youth flushed down the slammer.
A couple of songs, “Walkin’ Bum” and “One Way Ticket To Nowhere”, sound as if they have sprung from the same idea. But there is an insistent and repetitive eeriness in such things as the unappetizing ingredients of the impossible and fate-postponing desired courses of a Death Row resident’s last meal, mojo materials repeated yet again in the package’s final track, “Conjer Man”. Sometimes personal experience slants through like a glimpse of hell, and there are lightning flashes of lyrical promise. But what holds it all together is Coe’s own most obvious trait: utter, unflinching, self-absorbed intensity.
Soon after recording Penitentiary Blues, Coe was signed to a publishing contract that resulted in the never-before-released songs on For The Soul And For The Mind. The effect Nashville was having on his voice and work cannot be missed. The voice is smoothed to mellifluousness. The songs are better crafted and single-mindedly directed toward mainstream country, picking up on themes from Haggard, Jones, and the Nashville incarnation of Jerry Lee Lewis. The Lewis tracks are so frankly aimed that they ad-lib an occasional “Jerry Lee” and “killer”; the Haggard songs concern physical and spiritual wandering or running; the Jones ones, bottles. There are the dark story-songs “A Cold Lump Of Coal” and “The Great Northern Coal Company”, another in celebration of a truck, yet another about a mother who loves her kids more than the men she has to bed to raise them. Some of these seem almost good enough to have made it, dealing individualistically with time-honored themes.
A seeming key to the abrasive yet compelling cult performer that Coe has long since become — one contemptuous of a squeamish American mainstream that preferred never-incarcerated “outlaws” to the more authentic kind — can be heard in “Little David”, the next-to-last track of Penitentiary Blues. It defiantly informs a departing lover, “Little David ain’t worried/Little David don’t cry.” A convict’s safety, sanity, and life depend on the degree of threat of pitiless savagery his manner can present to cellmates. Behind the bars that formed his art, Little David couldn’t cry.